The movie's tendency to stray into the ridiculous robs it of the majesty director Albert Hughes so clearly hoped to achieve. Rating: 2 stars out of 4
Right out of the chute, “Alpha” demands that the audience accept a great many impossible-to-believe things.
Like: the hero, a young Cro-Magnon kid named Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee), surviving being hurled over a super-steep cliff by a rampaging bison. And: crashing onto a super-narrow ledge halfway down the cliff without breaking every single bone in his body. Further: rolling off said ledge and then clinging to the sheer cliff face in the manner of Tom Cruise in “Mission: Impossible – Fallout.” Not to mention: losing his fingertip grip on the rocky face in a torrential downpour and plummeting what seems like 1,000 further feet into a conveniently materialized flood in the distant valley below — Ker-splash! — without being drowned and otherwise squashed by the whole catastrophic experience.
So much for whatever hopes director Albert Hughes (“Menace II Society,” “The Book of Eli”) may have harbored of creating a sense of realism in this prehistoric tale. The production went so far as to invent a Cro-Magnon language (subtitles!) to give “Alpha” a veneer of verisimilitude. But decisions major (all that cliff-related Sturm und Drang) and minor (scenes showing the kid wearing a little red loincloth for modern-movie modesty’s sake to qualify for a PG-13 rating) keep believability at bay.
“Alpha” is the story of Keda’s journey to manhood. He’s a lad of delicate sensibilities who has trouble fitting into the hunter society in which he’s been born. His poor spear-throwing skills and squeamishness when it comes to cutting the throats of downed prey cause his dad (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson) to despair. “Life is for the strong,” Dad counsels, but Keda can’t get the hang of it.
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That is, until he plunges off that cliff, leading his people to believe he’s been killed. Then he must draw on hitherto unsuspected inner resources to traverse the incredibly scenic vastness of the world of 20,000 years in the past (director of photography Martin Gschlacht’s images, captured mostly in the wilderness of Alberta, Canada, are stunning).
He doesn’t trek alone. About 45 minutes into the picture the second-most important character appears, a wolf (played by a wolf-dog named Chuck). At first the animal regards Keda as a potential meal until the kid wounds the attacking creature and then cautiously heals it and slowly bonds with it.
The first halting steps toward domestication begin with the offer of a bowl of water, then the sharing of a slaughtered bunny, and eventually they’re hunting prey and snuggling together by the light of a warming campfire. Finally, the animal, named Alpha by the kid, goes full Lassie and hauls Timmy, er, Keda, out of an icy lake.
Hughes’ handling of the material is unfailingly serious but the picture’s tendency to stray into the ridiculous robs it of the majesty the director so clearly hoped to achieve.
★★ “Alpha,” with Kodi Smit-McPhee, Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson. Directed by Albert Hughes from a screenplay by Daniele Sebastian Wiedenhaupt. 96 minutes. Rated PG-13 for some intense peril. Multiple theaters.